There were few guideposts for when I decided to “go punk” a few months after my mother’s death. It was a spur of the moment decision made during a fit of melancholy boredom and the need to regain control of my personal narrative. What remained of the scene barely generated any media heat, even among the local alt-weeklies, and the few kids in my suburb who had flirted with it had since moved onto more sophisticated forms of youth rebellion. What guidance I did get came from distorted word-of-mouth fragments, Repo Man, Return of the Living Dead, and the liner notes from some retrospective cassettes.
The rest I just sorta made up as I went along. You can’t get more authentically “punk” than that, but it didn’t stop me from seeking out any stray bits of related flotsam to help illuminate the process. Hell, I warmed up to Jack Kirby’s OMAC specifically because he rocked a mohawk and sideburns. The biggest/most influential/goofiest development on that front was discovering a copy of Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus at the Boston Public Library.
The 1989 “secret history of the 20th Century” was the first genuinely “punk” book I’d ever stumbled across. It didn’t matter that two-thirds of the jumped up master’s thesis dealt with unfamiliar and impenetrable heretical sects and radical movements — though I did already know about dadaism from that one episode of Ripley’s Believe It or Not — what was in there still provided ample fodder for my ongoing will towards self-actualization.
As I’ve gotten older and crawled out of the bowels of that cultural history beast, much of Marcus’ connective leaps of consciousness come off as hyperbolic overreach. His thesis is intriguing but the threads he uses to tie the movements together were tenuous as well as insufferably pretentious. The only verifiable tradition on display in Lipstick Traces and the essays it has coalesced around is the pop music critic’s desire to find transcendent qualities in ephemeral objects.
That said, my seventeen year old self bought into that line of bullshit hook, line and sinker. What confused teenage trauma victim wouldn’t want to believe their fumbling attempts at rebellion were part of a ongoing cycle of anti-authoritarian subversion and not a dumb whim because you felt pissed at the world one weekend afternoon and thrash metal just wasn’t cutting it anymore?
It gave me a sense of purpose and a larger context to explore, which was no less fascinating despite its tenuous connections to the punk scene. The book also provided a intriguing list of punk bands to seek out. Besides the familiar Clash and Pistols, Marcus referenced new-to-me acts like the Au Pairs, Slits, Adverts, and X-Ray Spex, often through fanciful descriptions of specific tracks that kicked my interest into overdrive.
Unfortunately, most of the music cited was long out-of-print and had never been released on this side of the Atlantic. My quest to track it down eventually led me into the realm of record collecting (and thus this feature). Before my desperation turned to crate-digging, I made a fair effort at chasing down anything related to the book’s discography on audio cassette. That’s how I ended up with my original copies of Gang of Four’s Entertainment, Elvis Costello’s This Years Model, and a collection of Wire’s early singles — though it would be a few years before I was fully able to appreciate them.
It’s also how I ended up plunking down nine bucks for the dust-caked double-cassette Urgh! A Music War soundtrack at the Strawberries off the Middlesex Turnpike in Burlington. I knew fuck all about the film at the time, but I did know the label said it included an Au Pairs track along with songs I’d never heard of by bands I vaguely remembered from my grade school Top 40 days. I wasn’t thrilled about the live performance part of it, but beggars couldn’t afford to be choosers.
I started with side three, working my way through the oddness of primordial Devo and Echo & The Bunnymen cuts (“This sounds nothing like ‘Whip It’ or ‘Lips Like Sugar'”) to finally experience the Au Pairs’ majesty for myself…
…by way of “Come Again,” a caustic little ditty about bad sex in the era of the “sensitive male.”
Here’s a rough transcription of Young Andrew’s thoughts during that first listen: “Is she singing about? Oh, jeez, she is singing about that. Holy shit, I think Nana is coming upstairs! PRESS EJECT! PRESS EJECT!”
The rest of tracklist was a bit less embarrassing but equally strange. Even when the band names were familiar — like Wall of Voodoo or XTC — the featured songs were much spiker and spookier than the material I knew from my pop radio days.
The one song I did know, The Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat,” was rough-edged and punky and light years away from the breezy version I remembered from the grade school playground. (Okay, I knew OMD’s “Enola Gay” as well, but only through a chiptune version featured on the C64’s “Synth Sample” program. I was startled to discover it was actually a “real” song.)
Some of the strangest entries on the soundtrack would remained inexplicable mysteries until my sophomore year in college. That was the first time I watched the movie, as a rental at my pal Leech’s apartment while we laying low and trying to avoid getting caught up in some drama with one of Maura’s more mercurial friends. It wasn’t until then I realized Klaus Nomi was one person and not a male-female singing duo and discovered what exactly Lux Interior was going during the middle part of “Tear It Up.” (Would that I could’ve remained ignorant on that latter one.)
While it didn’t become a favorite out of the gate, it did get quite a bit of play on the Walkman during the long early morning commutes from Woburn to Columbia Point. To this day, I still associate XTC’s “Respectable Street” with the southbound side of Wellington Station’s Orange Line platform. When the bottom fell out of one the side pockets of the Swiss Army rucksack I used as a bookbag, both Urgh cassettes ended up casualties of that spillage (along with my original Punk and Disorderly compilation tape and a thirdhand copy of Walk Among Us).
The double LP set was a common enough sight in used vinyl crates, but I didn’t feel any pressing need to replace my lost copy. I valued the Urgh soundtrack as a springboard more than as an entity unto itself. It was a concert recording crash course in the weird and wonderful “lost period” (in the States, at least) between new wave’s initial crop of novelty-driven chart hits and the bigger successes it experienced in the immediate wake of MTV’s debut. It was a time when art-damaged oddness still held a strong sway over acts which would later jettison any traces of post-punkiness in favor of a more marketable “Big Pop” sound.
That era is one of my musical “sweet spots,” and the Urgh soundtrack played a big part in shaping. (Well, along with grim nostalgia for the terrors that lurked on the periphery of a world otherwise bounded by action figures and Tangy Taffy and Billy Squier.)
A grainy dupe of a rental copy of Urgh became fixture of our lazy Sunday afternoons from the mid-Nineties through the turn of millennium. It was an easy way to avoid the dreaded “I dunno, what do YOU want to watch” discussion loop. Over the course of time, Maura and I would add and subtract from the list of bands we’d fast forward through, while later seeking out the studio versions of particular favorites. This was how my copy of Wall of Voodoo’s utterly sublime Dark Continent was obtained, as one of the final purchases of my original round of record collecting.
I made some modest attempts for score a CD version of the soundtrack during the early days of eBay, mostly for sentimental reasons but also because Maura was partial to the live versions of Gary Numan’s “Down in the Park” and Toyah’s “Danced.” The asking prices were extortionate, however, and I soon stopped bothering to look. A direct high-quality digital rip of the film’s audio eventually percolated down through the usual graymarket channels, which had the bonus of including tracks — such as a Carter Era early draft of the Dead Kennedys’ “Bleed for Me” — omitted from the official soundtrack.
When I got back into record collecting at the tail end of 2016, Urgh made it onto the lower half of my “essential albums” wishlist. I didn’t pursue it intently, because there were far more compelling prizes to score and I remembered the absurd prices the CD version had been going for. The joke was on me, as my first search turned up a still-shrinkwrapped copy of the set for just shy of a tenner.
Sides one and two of the soundtrack have gone on become an infrequent (but much enjoyed) selection in the post-evening commute, pre-dinner chillout roster of mutually agreeable LPs.
There few clunkers in there are vastly outweighed by the number of outstanding gems, and even the rough patches get a pass thanks to sentimental value.